When I first saw the video of the life-sized, two-stepping Elmo nonchalantly marching alongside a drumline down a Philadelphia street as a four-alarm fire erupted in the distance I wasn’t surprised. Philadelphia is a city of passion, and that passion is rooted in eccentric activities: men riding in traffic on horses, ATV/dirt bikers forcing cars out of the way to pop wheelies, and figures — like Philly Jesus — who may seem outlandish but are everyday examples of what makes Philly, Philly.
William Fulton, also known as “Philly Elmo,” alongside the Positive Movement Entertainment (PME) drumline, have become a part of that.
On a July evening in 2018, a four-alarm fire erupted from a junkyard in the Kensington section of Philadelphia. Fulton and PME noticed smoke while on their way home from a nearby performance and decided to follow it to find the source. When they realized it was a fire, they also noticed a crowd of onlookers — an audience. That’s when they decided to march.
“We parked two blocks away and marched around and as soon as we got [near the crowd], that was it,” Tony Royster, founder of PME, said. “All the lights cut on, it was all eyes on us.”
A video of the performance was viral by the next morning, making Fulton’s second moniker, “Philly Elmo,” popular on the Internet and around the city. This was a turning point for both Fulton and PME, but the former wasn’t immediately aware of the moment’s magnitude due to his personal struggles.
Before Fulton became Philly Elmo, the 31-year-old was unsuccessfully avoiding trouble.
“I was on the run for a while,” Fulton said. “I wasn’t reporting to probation like I was supposed to.”
Fulton ended up going to jail a day after the impromptu fire performance because of an argument that resulted in the other person calling the police. It wasn’t until he was released that he found out that the video went viral, a moment he said helped everything come together.
Fulton first acquired the Elmo costume in 2010 when his brother asked him to entertain a kid’s party. Out of all of the characters he tried on — he wasn’t a fan of Spongebob’s highwaters — he said the Elmo suit fit him perfectly and felt just right.
After the party, his brother let him borrow the costume so long as he returned it. But he never did. Fulton then spent his days walking around his West Philadelphia neighborhood in the costume, surprising adults and kids in hopes of evoking happiness and smiles. While random, he said his aimless strolls as Elmo gave him something to do and, eventually, he and the iconic Sesame Street puppet became one and the same.
In 2015, Fulton linked with PME after Royster recruited him to march with the drumline to expand their reach. Recently, Fulton has been splitting his time between marching with PME and another Philadelphia drumline called Impulse Music Group (IMG). He said he doesn’t prefer one team over the other as PME and IMG often collaborate. Whoever calls him and says they have a performance, he tags along.
“I just like being where the music is. It’s not like ‘Oh, this is my team. I rep this team.’ I just rep the music,” Fulton said. “It’s like being with a group of brothers. Just because one of your brothers isn’t around, don’t mean that’s not your brother.”
Royster founded PME because of his affinity for playing the drums. Growing up in the now-defunct Pulaski Town Projects, competing with drill teams allowed him to practice his love for drumming while distracting him from the allure of illegal street activities that occurred around him. The creation of PME has allowed him to provide a creative and productive outlet for inner-city youth who might be in a similar living situation, all while spreading positivity, which is embodied in the group’s name and motto: “put down the guns, pick up some drums.”
“They’re my favorite thing about Philadelphia,” Tim Harris, a Philadelphia-based filmmaker, said. “The energy they bring and the message they spread is infectious, it makes you proud to be from here. I just think they’re an incredible thing that is so uniquely Philadelphian.”
Harris became acquainted with PME after they performed outside of a happy hour work party he attended back in 2016. He was so intrigued by their lively energy and mantra that he befriended Royster, which led to the making of a documentary on the drumline that was released in May. Harris and Royster have become close since their chance encounter and said that PME and Philly Elmo bring happiness and socialization to communities that otherwise wouldn’t know each other.
“Tony exudes passion; he’s very aware of where he came from and about wanting to give back,” Harris said. “He practices what he preaches.”
Since their viral moment, Philly Elmo and PME have been booked and busy, although many of their most memorable performances have been spontaneous. With the COVID-19 pandemic still in effect, nationwide quarantine orders have robbed people of the opportunity to visit family members and celebrate milestones. Elmo and the drumline have managed to achieve their goal of uplifting the Philadelphia community by doing pop-up street marches.
South Philadelphia native Judy Robbins spotted them twice within the past month. The first time, she was getting ready for bed when she heard muffled drums from her home’s front windows. When she went out to watch, she wasn’t surprised to see it was Philly Elmo and PME.
“I feel like drum lines are in common Philadelphia knowledge,” Robbins said. “One thing about communities and especially Philly is that there are so many different ways to take care of each other, and a lot of that is through joy and music. I think bringing what you have to the table to take care of people is really beautiful, and that’s what they’re doing.”
The troupe said that the pandemic has primarily been beneficial to them, as they’ve been able to use the fact that people are quarantining to their advantage. They’ve only been shut down a few times for marching past the city’s curfew.
“Usually when we march through the community, people are at work [and school]. A lot of people don’t really get to see us,” Royster said. “Now that everybody is home, they really can get a chance to see us.”
For Fulton, the impromptu street marches are like “a roll of the dice.” There’s a sense of mystery and thrill that he experiences ahead of these performances, mainly because he doesn’t know what he’s about to face.
“It’s exciting because no one knows we’re coming,” Fulton said. “I don’t know who I’m about to run into, I don’t know who’s going to dance with me, what kids are going to cry, who’s going to come outside. But I love it.”
As far as staying safe, the drummers march in masks, while Fulton’s Elmo costume acts as a barrier for the people he interacts with. Even still, he is sure to ask permission before hugging or approaching people who are watching from their front doors and stoops. He also washes his suit thoroughly after each performance.
“I’m willing to catch corona to still make everybody happy,” Fulton said. “Nothing’s going to stop me.”
Amid the pandemic, nationwide protests have emerged following the death of George Floyd. As people have been expressing their solidarity with the Black community, protesters have come in various forms, including a duplicate Elmo who was spotted at a Philadelphia protest with his fist raised as a fire burned in the background. The striking image inevitably made the rounds on Twitter, with people mistaking the protest Elmo with the real Philly Elmo. Fulton noticed and took to his Instagram to clear up the confusion.
When asked about the image, Fulton said that it upset him because he didn’t want to be associated with the protest Elmo, considering he cleared his record following his most recent stint in jail. He also felt that the image portrayed Elmo in a negative light and, in turn, would have a negative influence on children.
“Kids are on tablets and phones 24/7, so if they’re looking on their phone and they say, ‘Ooh, Elmo’s burning down the building, so Imma go over there and start this fire,’ I don’t like that and that’s not the type of person I am,” he said. “I love the community and I love the city of Philadelphia, but the negative stuff may cause havoc on the city and I don’t want that.”
Whether a pandemic or protest, Philly Elmo marches on. And while his persona continues to permeate Philadelphia and the internet, he hopes this will open up more opportunities for him to continue spreading positivity and uplifting those around him.
“My gift to myself was becoming Elmo,” he said. “I became loving, I became caring. I want to do Elmo until the day I go away. When I’m not here no more, I would like them to take Elmo and bury him right next to me. That’s how into my character I am.”
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